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Tethered Millenials: Training the Net Generation

By Meg Brown, AIA, and Cliff Moser, AIA, LEED AP

In Generations (1991), Strauss and Howe proposed the theory of generational cohorts, where every generation of twenty or so years reacts to and is part of the previous generation's systems and framework.

In 2000 they published Millennials Rising. This work investigated the emergence of the Millennials, born 1982 to 2001, and their relationship and involvement with their previous generations, the Boomers and Generation X (GenX, or Xers). In contrast to the downbeat and alienated youngsters familiar to their own childhood, Strauss and Howe suggested that this new generation would be engaged and upbeat. They accounted this to their "Generational Awakening" theory, casting Millennials as the next great generation, even comparing their potential to the last great generation, that of the GI WWII vets.

In developing this theory, Strauss and Howe identified four repeating trends which create each generational cohort. These trends are: Civic, Adaptive, Idealist and Reactive. Civic starts the generational trend with the GI generation of WWII. The GIs were born between 1901 and 1924. The Adaptive follows in the next generation, this time Silents, who were born between 1925 and 1942. Boomers are the Idealist trend, born between 1943 and 1960. GenX follows as Reactive between 1961 and 1981. And Millennials then follow to repeat the Civic trend and are born between 1982 and 2001. See the chart below for each Strauss and Howe generational characteristics.

Generational Group


Birth Year


G.I. Generation



respond to a social crisis (WWII); focus on common good, Community, rebuilding the world




flexible; sensitive to diversity (told to 'stay out of the way, we're busy' during WW2). Note: no US president or UK prime minister from this group




spiritual awakening; aim to 'take things forward'




cynical, pragmatic, questioning




optimistic, success-oriented, conservative

New Silent



Similar to the first Silent?

According to these ideas, Millennials now enter the workplace with an awful lot of promise, as well as encumbrances. We list them as the tethered generation, continuing to be raised by their helicopter parents long after they have finished college and entered the workforce. They are also the single pet/children of the Boomers and Xers, raised with not only seatbelts, but side airbags, baby monitors, bicycle helmets, scheduled playdates, and participation trophies. Because of this, Millennials want to be protected, entertained, scheduled, want instant rewards, and expect to run your company (if not rule the world), by their second full week on the job. While Strauss and Howe talk about how wonderful this new "Civic" workforce will be, we, as executives and managers, have to figure out if we need to change the entire workplace to help them in working for us.

Additionally, this is the first time in history that there are four generations active in the workplace. There are Silents, Baby Boomers, Xers and Millennials. With Millennials, it's the other three generations that are feeling forced to change in order to fit the coddled children now in the building.

Who are these Millennials and what are their promises and challenges?

As over-scheduled children, Millennials are now experiential learners; they prefer learning by doing, but within a framework of organization.  They also have a nomadic communication style, talking to or texting their friends constantly.

Because they are singletons within their immediate families, they respect adulthood, they strive to be learning, respect intelligence and education, and most will go directly onto graduate school. But because of the college requirements, they also come into the workplace with excessive debt from student loans, and want to earn as much as possible to retire that debt.

Millennials are collaborators. After many years of being forced to play nice during playdates, daycares, schools, and soccer teams, they now embrace peer-to peer networks, social-networking sites, and other structured team activities.

The firm must measure outcome-based performance. If your Millennials are getting the job done faster than anticipated, give them more to do.  Don't settle for poor quality, but don't get mad if they are also conducting personal conversations (or watching Youtube) while they're working.

Keep Millennials engaged, because their attitude will be: "if my skills are developing, I'll stay; if not, I'll go somewhere else."

Just as you should have done for your Boomers (long ago), as well as for your Xers, your firm should offer your Millennials multiple mentors and a schedule to help registration for the IDP.

But what about these other generations? The Silents, the Boomers, and the Xers? They're not going away. How can the firm work with this blended community of workers?

According to the Generational Awakening theory, each generational cohort plays its part as an actor in the span of time. Civics focus on the common good and are Millennials and GIs. Adaptives (the Silents) react neutrally against this goodness and tend to stay out of the way and behave themselves. Idealists are the next group and, rather than focusing on the common good, they focus on themselves. This is the "me" generation of Boomers. Reactives look at the mess the self-centered Idealists left and become ironic and cynical. Look at the comedy of Jon Stewart and Chris Rock to see Xer views.

Silents: This is the Korean War vet generation. Born from 1925 to 1942, they were in their 20s and 30s in the 1950s, just in time for atom bombs and cold wars. In this group, only males were in the workforce, while women stayed at home and raised families (94%). Only 22% went to college and in the 1950 and 60s work was in major industries (70% currently have some sort of pension plan (ask your Millennials if they even know what a pension plan is)). In the 1950 and 60s, this group had full health insurance, vacation and sick plans, and company cars. What they didn't have was a safe world. In 1952, at the end of a particular nasty polio epidemic, 58,000 people had been infected, resulting in over 3,000 deaths.

The times make the man. A lot of the resentment to young staff's seemingly insubordinate behavior and demands comes from the background of its leaders.

Baby Boomers. This is the pig in the python for business management. This cohort, born between 1943 and 1960, runs practically everything right now. In late 2008, we've lived life under the Boomer world view since the late 1970s. Defining moments in the 20-year coming of age for the Boomer include Woodstock (of course), Vietnam (58,148 casualties), the birth control pill, and Nixon's resignation. The business world works the way it does today because of Boomers. During their time at the wheel, personal savings has decreased from 12% in 1982 to 0.1% in 2007 (though in 2008 it is back up to 2.5%).

GenX. This cohort was born between 1961 and 1981. These workers followed the Boomers into the workforce and were quickly met with a one-two punch of inflation and recession. Interest rates were 19% during President Reagan's first term in 1981. In addition to the economy, Xers defining moments were the Challenger space shuttle explosion, the Berlin Wall and Soviet collapse, and the first Gulf war. Xer icons were Less than Zero, Kurt Cobain, Alf, He-man, and Skeletor. Xers came of age in the 1980s and then wondered what happened in the 1990s.

Xers are the neglected cohort. Just five years ago, in 2003, at the AIA National Convention in San Diego, N. Boyce Appel presented to the PMKC breakfast his view of generations within the workforce. While not pinned against Strauss and Howe's Generational Awaking theory, he suggested that firms treat Xers by following these polite directives:

  • Appreciate us. Show you care.
  • Be flexible. Let us have a life beyond work.
  • Create a team. Give us the family we never had.
  • Develop us. Help us to increase our skills.
  • Involve us. Ask our opinions.
  • Lighten up. Remember, it's not brain surgery.
  • Walk your talk. Practice what you preach.

It's amazing how history suggests the same solutions, only five years ago…


This article is based on the continuing education session given at the 2008 AIA Convention by Meg Brown and Cliff Moser. Brown and Moser have also created a podcast on this topic.

Like this article? Search
AIA Soloso for more articles on this topic, such as this one by Rena Klein, FAIA!


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